Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman : MEMOIR : PROSPECT: The Journal of an Artist,<i> By Anne Truitt (Scribner: $22; 221 pp.)</i>
In “Prospect,” her third volume of reflections, Washington, D.C., artist Anne Truitt sets out to reconsider her “whole experience as an artist"--and also as a daughter, mother, grandmother, teacher and lifelong seeker. Though subtitled “The Journal of an Artist” and based on the 1991-'92 journal she kept to help her through anxious preparations for a major New York retrospective exhibition of her sculpture (1961-1991), the book is actually not a journal but a distilled narrative of a year that encompasses a lifetime. Written by a woman in her 70s “preparing to reach the end of a long life,” the prospect of the title is, as Truitt makes clear, old age and death. Yet far from being gloomy, Truitt’s outlook, steadied by fierce intelligence, adaptability, detachment (learned reluctantly from her mother and keenly from Cicero) and, most strikingly, a passion to cut to the meaning of every experience, makes her an optimistic, even exemplary guide through this territory that awaits us all.
In her opening pages, Truitt quickly recounts events in her early life that seduced her from a career in psychology to that of an artist. Readers of her earlier journals, “Daybook” and “Turn,” will recognize the mental map of her childhood in Easton, Md.; the Depression collapse of her privileged parents, which freed her to independence; and her life-changing confrontations with three paintings: Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” which showed her art’s “power to shatter the appearance of things so as to reveal behind them another order”; Reinhardt’s black canvas on which a blue-black cross daringly risks imperceptibility, “exactly like meaning in life”; and, finally, a Barnett Newman painting of a “great area of blue” space, previously known to her only in imagination. These meanings beneath appearances are what Truitt, pursuing “the just-visible,” attempts to capture in her artwork and in her writing.
Entering her 70s, she is in crisis: Her art no longer sells; she finds herself powerless to protect her family from life’s painful vicissitudes of illness, early death, divorce and suicide; she views her own approaching death with anxiety; and she is slapped with the threat of forced retirement from a university professorship that for decades enabled her, as a single parent, to raise her three children and finance her art. Hopeful despite the certainty that she will be “wounded,” she looks to the coming exhibition to turn her life around.
It does, but not as she imagined. Crushed by the exhibition’s total financial failure, despite critical attention, she suddenly realizes “that my attachment to my work as a kind of justification for my life is not only inordinate but also the very self-deception that I have sometimes smugly criticized in others.” Instead, her journal, with its “relentless exposure of myself to myself,” becomes the catalyst through which she eventually reconciles her past and future.
Three dominant themes run in counterpoint through these pages: family, aging and, most penetratingly, art. Art is so pivotal to Truitt that she sometimes views her writing and her personal life as “defenses” against her vulnerability as an artist. Her engagement in her work is palpable and inspiring. Brilliantly articulate on creative process, artistic practices and aesthetic aspirations, she offers insights that bridge the disciplines. Observing the way her three themes intersect in a woman’s life, she details the psychic damage suffered by women artists whose seriousness and artistic purposes are discounted, feels herself become “outdated” and explores the ambiguous tensions between work and family.
Scattered throughout these reflections are mini-essays, like gleaming nuggets, on such spin-offs from her central themes as fate, change, domesticity and success. Her readings are wide-ranging, her mind agile and tough. Such disparate inspirations as Heraclitus, Darwin, Wilhelm Reich and polar explorers spark her speculations on the body, afterlife and perception. Her style is richly metaphoric and distilled, like the best work in this expanding genre, namely, reflections of women growing old. Yet she moves the narrative along through the year’s seasons and events--several more exhibitions, a stay at an artists’ colony, a visit to her former governess, intimate family meals, her 50th class reunion at Bryn Mawr--everywhere delving into her experience for meaning.
Passionate and honest as she is in plumbing her own depths, Truitt is private and decorous to the point of reticence about others, unless to praise. (The only critics she chides are the subtly sexist ones.) Even of her parents, long dead, whose influence on her occupies many intriguing pages, she admits, “I guard my tongue. . . . I sieve the good.” This ladylike reserve has the odd effect of seeming less withholding than disengaged. Perhaps reconciliation, which is the goal and outcome of these reflections, is served by such propriety; still, sometimes I wished Truitt would get personal and let loose with an indiscretion, innuendo, outburst or joke. I kept wondering what she wasn’t telling us--for example, about the machinations of the art world she knows so well.
By the time she has finished her book, at age 72, Truitt has learned transforming lessons: That living with insecurity “is critical to psychological growth”; that the spirit may be indistinguishable from the body; that character changes little over time; that a life, like a sculpture, cannot be brought to a “tidy end.” And whereas earlier she reported feeling exiled, outcast, even ashamed of being considered old, as if “age had automatically reduced my competence,” now she accepts offers of help with an “increasingly sweet feeling of acquiescence” and finally declares aging “the most interesting thing that has ever happened to me.” Closing this sage portrait of the artist as an old woman, I believed her.